The number of entries in this year's River Cities' Reader short-fiction contest jumped to over 120, up more than 25 percent from last year. There was one significant rule change - the word limit was cut from 250 to 200 - but that didn't seem to affect the quality of entries. Writers from the Quad Cities and beyond gave us interesting, provocative, and dense narratives, and winnowing the list down to the finalists was difficult. The subjects ranged from religion to relationships to murder, with just about everything in between.

We present 15 of the best entries here, five winners and 10 other finalists. While they're disparate in tone, content, and style, most share a few traits: They're full of idiosyncratic detail, the authors have breathed life into the characters, and they have a ring of authenticity.

And although they didn't make the final cut, we need to mention a few notable entries: Phillip Wiese of Evanston, Illinois, submitted the shortest story ("Mother may I go outside tonight?" - that's it), Drew Morton of Coal Valley wrote about a deformed Krispy Kreme doughnut, and Michael McCarty of Rock Island gave us the grossest entry (whose title, "The Constipated Cannibal," tells you all you need to know).

Enjoy these offerings, and keep those pencils and minds sharp for next year's contest!

First Place
Pat McSparin, Kansas City, Missouri

"So, tell me," I said, staring at the ceiling, "what's the deal with your name?"

"The deal," she mumbled as she rubbed my earlobe, "is my mom's a twit."

"Are you named after the battlefield?"

She stopped rubbing. "My mother knows nothing about the battle of Shiloh."

"Why not?"

"I told you: She's a twit. Besides, I spell it without the H."

"Shilo with no H. Like Sara with no H?"

"You have really long ear hair."

"Thanks. So, where'd she get 'Shilo,' Shilo?"

"It's blond. Why is your ear hair long and blond?"

"There's a short story called 'Shiloh,' but that was the battlefield, too."

"And it had an H."

We lay silent. I breathed her scent and hoped it would linger after she was gone, especially in the pillow. She ran her knuckles against the grain of my morning beard.

"I have a hangover," she said.

"Where the hell would she get 'Shilo'?" I asked again.

Her nails were neither long nor polished, but they pinched my earlobe so hard I thought she'd broken the skin. I leapt from bed with an emasculated yelp.

"It's from the Neil Diamond song," she said, scratching herself under the covers.

Second Place
Conrad Jacobson, Chicago, Illinois

I'm leaving my husband.

I decide this as we drive home, through the beating rain. "I read the strangest thing today," he says. He does this, fills the silence with yak.

The patter on the windshield makes me tired, my arms heavy, my visage cold, unresponsive.

"What?" I play along. "What did you read?"

Outside it's wet, blurry, a slick suburban wonderland. Figures huddle under awnings, hoods up, sleeves tugged, faceless, handless silhouettes.

"Somebody stole a police rescue boat," he says, seriously, like a child trying only to impress.

We pass the church we once attended only out of childish habit, the church where we married. And I think about children we will never baptize, vows we will never renew.

"He capsizes the boat, but the police have no way to rescue him," he laughs, a snort and exhale. "He nearly drowned."

"He survived?" I ask, disappointed. I want gore. I want tragedy.

"Well, yeah."

I shake my head, acting amused, but I'm only thinking, These hard lessons should be learned hard.

The patter quickens, so much that it sounds like whispering, whispers of warning from above, whispers I cannot quite make out no matter how hard I try.

Third Place
My Grandpa's House
Jim Estes, Davenport

The turtle-shell sky gleamed milky blue from the reflected light of a half moon. The night air was still, and for summer, cool. Far off, a dog barked and across the valley behind the house a ranch's light shone.

We went inside and turned on lights. My grandpa had lived simply and alone for the last 20 years of his life. The house was nearly empty, with an old couch, a bookcase with journals, photo albums, hunting and fishing books in the living room, a twin bed, a dresser, and a desk in one bedroom, and nothing in the other bedroom. In the closet was my grandpa's wool plaid coat, his 12-gauge, and an old Garcia baitcaster reel and fiberglass rod. The floors were worn brown paint over pine planks. The walls needed painting and were yellowed white. You could smell cigar smoke and dog.

Isabel took my hand and laid me down on my grandpa's bed, where she half-covered me with her body, close on the small bed, but I felt the old man and got up. I got our sleeping bags from the truck and had no such trouble on the floor.

Honorable Mention
Click. Click.
Graham Latchaw, Davenport

Click. Click. The thing in his brain that knows right from wrong was sending an urgent message. But, the thing that receives those messages was broken. It lay in three pieces on the floor. It had been broken so long, he was only aware of it when the pieces rolled around.

He was walking briskly on a crowded sidewalk, against the flow. Throngs of humanity streamed by, merely a blur to him. He was focusing on a much larger picture.

He saw that they were nothing but everyday red blood cells, rushing compulsively through the invisible veins of the universe. He was a white blood cell and could therefore only do one thing.

He wasn't sure how long it had been since he saw the truth and accepted his mission to defend the body of the universe from impurity.

"Cowboy" was a panhandler. He told people he had run out of gas trying to get to the hospital. He made $50,000 a year.

He could smell impurity a mile away ... see it coming off in waves.

Click. Click.

Click. Click.


Walk away, calm and cool ... on a mission.

Honorable Mention
Railroad Tracks
Howard Bunch, Bettendorf

In 1961 my brother and I put pennies on the rails, 10 of them, five on each side, every two feet, and waited for the 4:45 to come through. Down in the ditch with the overhanging brush, we waited somewhat out of the harsh, late-October wind.

Thought I smelled whiskey, and in the next instant the train bum grabbed my shoulder and tried to turn me toward him, leering, and there was a god-awful stench. I screamed, then my brother screamed, and we shot straight up out of our hiding place and rolled, clawed, scrambled, wide-eyed, instantly sweating, up the ditch bank.

I never ran any faster than then, the bum's yells behind us, catching us. Went through some mushy ground and lost my left shoe and kept sprinting, and the road came and I kept going and my left-foot toes started feeling numb, but I kept going, my athletic brother ahead of me.

I could not explain the lost shoe and the bloody toes, and got whipped for it. We never went back to look for the pennies.

History According to Me
Paul F. Johnson, Tampico, Illinois

I just have to tell someone.

You know all those oversized bargain books stacked at the front of your local bookstore - Great Battles of the Civil War, Paintings of the Masters, Lighthouses of the Great Lakes? I wrote them - I'm the guy. When you see "Vista Press" or "Periscope Publishing," or something like that, it's me. Here in this gray cubicle on West 57th, six days a week, grinding it out for the printing plants in Singapore.

Surprised? Of course you aren't. No one reads that crap.

If you were to ever read the schlocky prose that accompanies those marginally reproduced public-domain drawings and photographs, you'd really learn something. For example, Van Gogh sliced off his own penis, the Statue of Liberty was a gift from shy but friendly residents of Jupiter, and General Robert E. Lee enjoyed bestial liaisons with Traveller on the eve of battle. According to me, all that stuff happened. Check it out.

I want to make one thing clear, though: I'm not responsible for the cheap cookbooks. That's Carol one cube over. Maybe she'll come clean someday.

Chasing the Demon
R.J. De Paepe, East Moline

She works under a clear blue sky. Clear plastic goggles protect her eyes. Her hands hold a chisel and a hammer. Her mouth is set in a determined line as she works yet another sliver of wood from the sculpture before her. A thick pile of shavings lies scattered at her feet.

She works with a purpose. The sculpture is undeniably alien in appearance, only its upper half as yet liberated from its wooden prison. It is male in likeness, and a definite sense of malfeasance is reflected in its open mouth and slit-like eyes.

She stops often, stepping back to study her work, then continuing to cut away another chip of wood. The figure is slowly coming to life. She knows the face only from her dreams. It is a face that terrifies her.

After hours of careful carving, she steps back from her work. She studies the face, trying to determine if it is indeed the visage from her haunting nightmares.

A cup of herbal tea sits untouched on a nearby stool. A tiny flake of wood floats on its calm surface, a diminutive ship set adrift in a circular translucent green sea.

The Gift
Teresa Mesich, Rock Island

Lilly is an artist. People get curious about that sometimes. They want to know what it means to her. She used to stumble around for an answer, but not now.

Lilly had the terrible privilege of attending her father's death. After the tears and the duties, she went home and nailed 12 feet of canvas to a wall. She climbed a ladder to reach the top of the biggest painting ever, to deal with the biggest grief. She worked with ascending shapes, floating in an ocean of color ... big strokes, big brushes. She wanted pure abstraction. But here's the thing. Time and again, unbidden, her father's face rose up from the smeary paint. A flick of the brush, a dot of dark color, and there he was. She'd add more paint, pushing him under, but another few strokes and there he was again. At first she howled and cried. Then she smiled.

Now, years later, with just a pencil stub and a bit of paper, Lilly can bring him back whenever she wants. He taught her what to love about her gift ... the power of creation. "Don't worry, Dad", she said. "I get it."

Kimberly Bonja, Rock Island

Johnnie was only a parolee working shifts as a cook at Sambo's, but he could prepare eggs 12 ways and that made him valuable.

"I learned it in 'Nam," he'd brag to Kathy. "The guys needed variety in all that heat."

Kathy moved morosely around tables refilling condiments as Johnnie scraped the grill, Griddle-Gold glistening on his tattooed forearms.

"Yeah, first they made me a killer, then a cook. What a kick in the head!"

The condiments filled, Kathy reluctantly returned to her station. It was a slow night; even the drunks were away. The new eatery across the street hurt business. Of course, there was Johnnie. He scared the hell out of most people, especially Kathy, stuck on nights with him while doing graduate work in philosophy days. Her true vocation gave her perspective. She didn't believe Johnnie was as dangerous as he claimed.

"Goddamn diner!" Johnnie bellowed. "I just saw another regular walking in there!"

"Calm down. They're just curious about the new place ... ." But she'd misjudged Johnnie badly. He catapulted over the counter and was out the door with his five-pound grill scraper before she could react.

After that, Kathy worked with a new cook.

John Crownover, Davenport

It could have been the badlands. The bulldozers had gone, leaving reddish mounds of clay and rock at the end of the block. Set against the blue skies of early July, and from the eye level of six-year-old boys, it was the badlands.

Much of the earth was dry enough to walk on without getting mud in the treads of one's shoes yet damp enough to be easily molded into balls. The mounds served as cover and could be climbed for surprise attacks, tactics used the previous day in a merciless pummeling of Caleb Moore, who thought he was part of a team. Three against three - that had been the deal.

The following day he had waited for them, ready with rocks disguised as mud. It was only fair since he was outnumbered. When they came, Caleb launched the first volley. His aim was so bad, several minutes of battle passed before one of his rocks connected with Tom Barrett's head. The skirmish came to an uneasy halt. Tommy was on the ground, crying and bloodied. The others scattered, wishing to avoid trouble at all cost. Caleb stood petrified in the shadows. He could hear grownups coming.

A Voice and Nothing More
Julie Jurgens, Rock Island

"Could you love a girl with scars on her knees?"

She's on them now, begging you to remember how you wept in her lap as she stroked your hair ... .

Your other girl's beauty will fade, while this girl's love will burn brighter every day ... still, you rise to go.

There are dark clouds. Will she be a noisy cricket or a firefly burning in silence? To think you might have never met. She's beautiful. When she sings you want to kiss her, torn between the desire to hear and the desire to taste. Tangled thread can be set free again. People are not so easy to untangle.

She whispers, "Vox et praeterea nihil ... ."

Her poetry confuses you, but it makes you feel - everything.

She is silent now. You kiss her, trying to taste words unsaid, and only taste vanilla and cinnamon. You would not stay and make her happy, so you made her French toast and miserable instead.

She gave you so much love in one night. She thought that you would ease her; but what if you frayed after awhile, and her fickle heart, it did forget you?

You close the door and go.

Tim Smith, Reynolds, Illinois

I met a girl from Fiji and she is leaving in two days. I look into her eyes to find eternal love. I will never see her again.

Curtis and Pete Meet at the El Dorado Grill
J.D. Blackman, Davenport

Weary from work, Curtis stopped at the local watering hole to knock back a few. Knowing that payday was still 72 hours away, Curtis didn't tip. That cute little barmaid could make her money from someone else. Beer turned to whiskey and Curtis looked at his watch. He slammed what was left and went.

Meanwhile, Pete was playing basketball with some buddies. It was getting dark, but the shots kept dropping. After the final game, he slapped hands and gave pound pounds. His friends were razzing him to get a car as he left on his bike. Craning to give them the bird, he turned onto the street, not noticing Curtis' black El Dorado speeding in the right lane.

That is when they met.

Five Words
John Deason, Muscatine, Iowa

She talked too much. Although attractive and intelligent, Abbie was a loudmouth. She never got a second date. When she drank, she was a verbal wolverine. She had no friends - who could tolerate such obnoxiousness? She could not perceive her fault, nor attempt a change. So she suffered.

Frank also suffered. A pure romantic, yet so shy he had never had a date. He watched his friends but dared not copy their techniques. He thought deeply about how to approach a woman. One line ... he needed an original line.

He read dictionaries, Shakespeare, poetry - constantly experimenting. Then he awoke one night with a phrase, so unique, so powerful. It was the one.

At a bar that night he saw her haranguing a captive, wide-eyed man who soon fled. Frank touched Abbie's shoulder. When she turned, he whispered the five words into her ear. Her mouth opened, but she couldn't speak. They gazed at each other in wonder. How many thousands of years had passed without those words ever spoken in that order? They left together, never to be separated, in love forever. She never spoke boorishly again. He hid the words, like a bomb, from the world.

So Close and Yet So Far
Chris Gulley, Rock Island

Charley was a handsome fellow and a good sport. Delilah was lovely and funny as hell. Both were employed by the Gaulway Corporation, "Makers of Fine Plastics for the Home."

Charley worked in research. Delilah worked in marketing. They'd both been with Gaulway about five years, yet had never met. It was a very big company.

One spring day at around three in the afternoon, Charley and Delilah each left work early. He'd promised to meet the cable guy, her parents were coming to town. As it happened, Charley and Delilah parked directly opposite each other in the parking garage that morning.

Charley watched Delilah pull out of her parking space, then he pulled out of his. As they idled in separate lanes at the garage exit waiting for traffic to clear, it happened. Their eyes locked and the birthing of a rare, exciting chemistry unleashed itself upon the universe.

Then the traffic cleared and they were gone. The residual vapors of their chemistry continued to burn white hot; a gossamer light show fanning out across the stratosphere, up and up, eventually settling seamlessly into our collective subconscious.

They never met again.

Last year's winners can be found here.

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